Hello Kitty designer Yuko Yamaguchi tells all about kitty’s past

April 21st, 2011

Nadine Kam photo

Hello Kitty designer, director and general manager Yuko Yamaguchi is in town to meet with fans of the iconic kitty at Sephora Ala Moana, where the Hello Kitty Beauty collection is being launched from 6 to 8 p.m. today, April 21.

It’s no wonder so many people love Hello Kitty. Hers is the classic underdog story — the high school loser turned It Girl, the ugly duckling blossoming into beautiful swan according to designer Yuko Yamaguchi, who rescued the mouthless kitty from what might have been a sad fate.

Hello Kitty was initially introduced in 1974 by another Yuko, Yuko Shimizu, but by the time Yamaguchi joined the Sanrio company as a young newcomer, Kitty was an underperforming black sheep of the Sanrio family.

As the lowest designer on the totem pole in the early 1980s, she was the third designer assigned to work on Hello Kitty, and disappointed in the prospect.

Although Yuko certainly looks the part of the Hello Kitty fan in her sweet Lolita dress, she said she’s had the same style since she was in high school, and over the years, has come to feel that “I feel like Hello Kitty has come to resemble me over time, coming over to my style.”

Through a Japanese interpreter, Aya Seto, she said, “All Sanrio designers back then, including myself, did not want to be the Hello Kitty designer. Everyone knew Hello Kitty was not selling well. The second designer was often scolded for not producing a character that sells well, so it was not quite a prize. I just thought, ‘What am I supposed to do with this?’

Sephora’s beauty expertts will be offering Hello Kitty Beauty makeovers tonight. The first 150 people  to spend $50 on Hello Kitty Beauty products before 5 p.m. today will have a guaranteed meeting with Hello Kitty designer Yuko Yamaguchi, who will be available to sign one item per person.

“I was not a fan, so I thought I should start by talking to fans to find out the strengths and weaknesses of the character.

“What I did was I went to all the Sanrio shops and did autograph sessions with fans. At the time, stores were not looking for the presence of designers. They’d say, ‘Please do it outside,’ so I didn’t get in the way of selling products. I handed out drawings of Hello Kitty and asked people if they recognized the character. It was quite sad. The information I collected was not so good. If I were the creator listening to all the comments, I wouldn’t be able to take it, For instance, they asked why is she always wearing the same clothes, she’s not trendy.”

More popular than Hello Kitty at the time were Little Twin Stars.

When I interviewed Yuko yesterday afternoon, and all this was a surprise to me. I thought Hello Kitty was popular at the start, but as I thought about it more, I remembered I did like Little Twin Stars, but remember seeing Keroppi everywhere. I, too, thought Hello Kitty was a little too bland and static, and ffell in love with the darker, cynical Badbatzmaru character. It wasn’t until Hello Kitty entered here Tarina Tarantino Pink Head phase that I started snatching up pieces of jewelry from that collection, followed byT-shirts and wristlets, and now call myself a fan. I actually used a picture of that necklace in association with this blog.

Nevertheless, Yuko went to work and in 1984, ended up in San Francisco for a year, working in a new design division that had opened there. If there was was anytime she felt like quitting, it was then.

“In Asia, there is similar taste with consumers,” she said. “If something is popular in Japan, it’s probably going to be well-received in other Asian countries. But in the United States, for the first time, no one recognized Hello Kitty. I would show pictures and people had no clue who she was.”

Hello Kitty Beauty bling mirror, $49

It was only in the 1990s, when Hello Kitty entered a more fashionable, stark black-and-white phase, the Yuko said she began to see a turnaround. About that time, New York designer Anna Sui had opened her Nolita boutique, and Yuko had to go see it.  She was elated to see the cashiers using a Hello Kitty pen and stand, and memo pads, and learned that Anna loves Hello Kitty.

“I thoguht that was so interesting to see and was like, ‘Oh wow!’ That made me really happy. That’s when I thought that maybe, Hello Kitty could be accepted in the U.S. market.

Subsequently, when Mariah Carey arrived for a concert in Japan, she was pictured wearing Hello Kitty slippers with Hello Kitty luggage.These days, Hello Kitty also counts the Hilton sisters as fans, as well as Lady Gaga.

The Hiltons went as far as arranging a meeting with Yuko, who said she’d never heard of them at the time.

“I was told they were celebrities, but didn’t know why. I thought it was interesting that the girls liked Hello Kitty, and I thought, “Well, I guess they’re celebrities if they say so.”

In spite of her appearance, Yuko said she doesn’t live the Hello Kitty lifestyle at home. The only reminders around her home are a few plush Hello Kitty dolls and pillows that depict the Kitty sleeping.

Hello Kitty Beauty Say Hello “Super Fun” palette, $35.

“To me, Hello Kitty is a business partner, so she might not let me fall asleep if she’s there.”

If she hadn’t worked on Hello Kitty, she doesn’t know what she would be doing today.

“I might have bought the cafe I was working in when I was in school,” she said.

In spite of being a designer, she said designing alone was never enough. She’d always been interested in the ideas of marketing and branding, long before  they became second nature to Generation Y. Hello Kitty has been a pioneer in leading the way for a new generation of character designers. She was even given a back story of having been born in London, a Scorpio with a father named George (named after “Star Wars” creator George Lucas) and a twin sister named Mimi, whose childhood dream was to be a bride.

Kitty also has Type A blood, which she shares with a majority of Japanese, giving them a feeling of shared heritage and belonging. Yuko said she later learned that a majority of people in the United States have Type O blood, and in China, Type B.

Hello Kitty has already made an impact on the fashion world. Her next dreams are to see Hello Kitty make a splash in the entertainment world, having hit recordings and perhaps winning an Oscar one day.

She’s already an animation star in Japan, with a theater of her own, so Yuko wants to see her make the leap acting opposite a star like Johnny Depp, or perhaps appearing in an episode of “Hawaii Five-0.”

It’s not too far-fetched, she believes, because the generation that grew up with Hello Kitty is of the same age coming to prominence as directors. She gives Hello Kitty  fan Sofia Coppola as an example. It’s the same generational fervor that has fueled Hello Kitty’s sales around the globe, as adults who grew up with Kitty, can now afford to indulge themselves on every manner of Hello Kitty product available for the home.

Yuko continues to travel to boutiques around the world, at 40 a year,  to meet with fans, though of course these days, the reception is different.

Yuko said, “I think I can say that Hello Kitty changed my life as much as I changed her life.”

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4 Responses to “Hello Kitty designer Yuko Yamaguchi tells all about kitty’s past”

  1. Maggie:

    Way to go Yuko, and Hello Kitty!!!!!

    Can’t believe the cat is close to my age. It really brings back childhood memories.

    Thanks Nadine. Great story!

  2. Charissa:

    Good article!

  3. Allie:

    Awesome, awesome story Nadine! Who knew Kitty came from such humble beginnings. I always loved Pochacco and Pekkle.

  4. Hello Kitty Designer YUKO YAMAGUCHI | Kawaii Kakkoii Sugoi:

    [...] Yuko said, “I think I can say that Hello Kitty changed my life as much as I changed her life.” (source) [...]

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